Humility Can Overcome The Snares Of The Devil

Humility Can Overcome The Snares Of The Devil March 1, 2017

Saint Antony by Anonymous (from a Greek Orthodox icon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Saint Antony by Anonymous (from a Greek Orthodox icon) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Abba Anthony said, “I saw the snares that the enemy spreads out over the world and I said groaning, “What can get through from such snares?” Then I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humility.'”[1]

Humility was central to Anthony’s spiritual life. He knew it was one of the chief virtues, that it should be a focal point for his own ascetic practice. He also understood that pride and vainglory, because they led a spiritual practitioner to focus and become attached to themselves, leads them to hold on to themselves above all others, until at last, they worship themselves over God.

Humility is both the cause and result of self-knowledge, because the humbler one becomes, the more they can know themselves in the light of truth.  This is why pride, the opposite of humility, can be said to create and hold on to an ignorance of the self as it positions a false view of the self and demands it to be reverenced. The truth is hidden from those attached to pride, because such pride becomes, as it were, the veil which hides from them their proper relationship with God and their neighbor.

In his letters, Anthony made it clear that one of the keys of the spiritual life is to know oneself as one truly is, and he wrote to his fellow monks with the realization that they, through their labors, have come to the same realization as himself: “Truly, my beloved in the Lord – I write for you as men of understanding, who are able to know yourselves – you know that he who knows himself knows God: and he who knows God, also knows the dispensations which He makes for his creatures.”[2] To be humble is to realize one’s limitations and to accept them. A humble person will be willing to open themselves up to and accept God’s graces being given to them, so that through the gift of the Spirit, they can be lifted up and experience beatitude. The prideful man or woman, on the other hand, will try to do all things themselves, and so will not cooperate with and integrate God’s grace to their actions, so that, without the perfection of grace, what they do will lack the sound foundation for it to have lasting positive value. This is why pride is the foundation for spiritual destruction, because it leads the person astray, making them think of all they have done is great without seeing the cracks in the foundation which show how unstable and fragile their accomplishments really are. In this manner, the Book of Proverbs wisely warns us: “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. It is better to be of a lowly spirit with the poor than to divide the spoil with the proud. He who gives heed to the word will prosper, and happy is he who trusts in the LORD” (Prov. 16:18-20 RSV).

Pride tempts us by the glories of the world, for it suggests we are worthy of those glories, and we should accept them when they come our way. We want to be treated as if we were in charge, we want as it were to rule the world, not considering the harm we would produce if we ruled according to the dictates of our pride. We want to be pampered. We think we are “worth it,” and that we should be given the luxuries of the world, not considering how such luxuries come to us, and the people who get hurt in their production and distribution. Likewise, we want to be adored, with fans willing to do anything for us, sacrificing their livelihood for us, and in so doing, they fall down with us when the ground beneath us collapses in from the weight of sin.

But, as long as we are blinded by our pride, what do we care? So long as we are attached to ourselves through pride, the damage we are doing to others will be ignored, because we will see all things in relation to ourselves. If we are doing well, we will think all others are doing well, and if not, it is their fault not ours.

Pride closes us off from the real world. It traps us in a delusion created by us in our minds, a delusion seeded by our sin and how it makes us think highly of ourselves. So long as pride remains, it can find ways to justify sin, which is why if we want to stop sin, we must root out this poison by humility. Jesus shows us in his retreat into the desert that it is by self-emptying humility that the temptations of the devil can be overcome (cf. Matt. 4:1-11 and Lk. 4:1-13).

For, in our temptation, the devil will always present to us the glories of the world, telling us we are worth them all, hoping by doing so, he can waylay us with temporal glories, preventing us from attaining the true glory which is to be had by following the simple path to God. We are easily distracted by promises which satisfy our selfish desires.

Our pride then seeks to justify such selfishness, giving excuse after excuse as to why we are “worth it,” which is why the way beyond the temptations of the world is through the pursuit for humility.  In humility, we will be open to justice, while our pride will transcend the dictates of justice as it justifies inordinate pleasures as fit for someone as great as we think we are. Jesus was able to transcend the vision of the world given to him by the devil because he wanted justice for the world. It is because Jesus, in his humility, promoted justice that he was able to transcend the second temptation of the devil, as Origen explained:

And the Savior had no need of having the activities of this world shown to him any longer. As soon as he turns the glance of his eyes to consider it, he beholds both sin reigning and those who are ruled by vices. He also sees the very “prince of this world,” the devil, vaunting himself and rejoicing in his own destruction, because he has such great men under his power.  [….] Our Lord and Savior does indeed wish to reign, and to have all nations subject to himself, so that they will devote themselves to justice, truth, and the rest of the virtues. But he wills to reign as Justice, so that he would reign without sin, and do nothing dishonorable. He does not will to be crowned without toil, as the devil’s subject, or to reign over others when he himself is ruled by the devil.[3]

Pride ignores injustice and reigns through the fallen egotistical self. This is why it is only when we let the fallen self be put on its cross and die can justice truly reign within. Humility is one of the nails which we must use to put ourselves on our cross, to cut off the false self, so that we can truly find ourselves alive in Christ. Humility is able to cut through all the gloss, all the sham, all the pretense of pride, seeing through the illusion it promises us, so that we can, by embracing humility, find the means to cooperate with grace and truly let the justice that counters sin reign in us. We must imitate Christ if we want to find ourselves coming alive in Christ. He emptied himself of all pretense, of all self-seeking, so that he could embrace justice and promote the truth; likewise, then, we must come to our own desert of the self, and empty ourselves of all pretense, so that through such self-emptying humility we can rise up a true follower of Christ.

When Anthony was being tempted by the glories of the world, and a voice told him that the way to be victorious against those temptations was humility, the soundness of the answer was obvious, yet the application of it was not so easy to execute. Anthony like the rest of us had to struggle with it. Every victory against some particular sin could easily have led Anthony to vainglory and pride, so that every victory against a particular temptation could be the means by which he accepted another, worse sin. It took a lot of patience, and an acceptance of his own limitations, for him to truly come to God and find himself perfected by grace.

Likewise, we need to come to accept our own limitations, even in our fight against pride. We will stumble, and fall; we must not let that wound our pride and make us give up in despair. We should just shrug it off and continue on. Moreover, we must accept that we can not do all things by ourselves. We need others, we need their help, and to keep that in mind will help us to truly come to know ourselves and the dispensations of God in our lives.

The attainment of humility can be and indeed likely will be a lifetime struggle. To accept this, however, is a part of humility. The more we have attained, the greater the risk we will become prideful of our accomplishment and so suffer a spiritual defeat.  Until we have reached a state where our humility becomes a natural part of who we are, we should always keep in mind our physical and spiritual weaknesses, so that our self-will becomes humbled, as St. Diadochos of Photiki proclaimed:

Humility is hard to acquire, and the deeper it is, the greater the struggle needed to gain it. There are two different ways in which it comes to those who share in divine knowledge. In the case of one who has advanced half-way along the path of spiritual experience, his self-will is humbled either by bodily weakness, or by people gratuitously hostile to those pursuing righteousness, or by evil thoughts. But when the intellect fully and consciously senses the illumination of God’s grace, the soul possesses a humility which is, as it were, natural. Wholly filled with divine blessedness, it can no longer by puffed up with its own glory; for even if it carries out God’s commandments ceaselessly, it still considers itself more humble than all other souls because it shares His forbearance. The first type of humility is usually marked by remorse and despondency, the second by joy and an enlightened reverence.[4]

Humility is able to bring great joy in the soul nearing perfection. Anthony’s life demonstrates the truth of this, as he went from great struggles fearing God, to his awareness of who he was in God, so that at the end of his journey he came to know all things in the love of God, including God himself.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984),2.

[2] St. Antony, The Letters of St. Antony the Great. trans. Derwas J. Chitty (Fairacres, Oxford: SLG Press, 1991), 12 [Letter III], 11.

[3] Origen, Homilies on Luke. trans. Joseph T. Lienhard SJ (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), 124.

[4] St. Diadochos of Photiki, “On Spiritual Knowledge” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume One. trans. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 292.

 

 

 

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